A Vision for the CSK: Past, Present, and Future

My first novel came out ten years ago, and one year later, in 2010, it was honored with the John Steptoe Award for New Talent by the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury. I was surprised and delighted on a number of levels when I got the call that January morning. I had certainly hoped (who wouldn’t?) that such a call might be in my future someday, but I’d also worked hard to maintain low expectations. After all, The Rock and the River tells the story of thirteen-year-old Sam, who struggles to find his own path when his father, a civil rights activist, and his older brother, a member of the Black Panther Party, clash over their ideals in 1968 Chicago.

I had wondered, would a book about teens in the Black Panther Party even be seriously considered for a CSK Award? The Panthers are often painted as embodying the opposite of the ideals that Dr. King stood for, and while that interpretation is both simplistic and incorrect, it remains widely held. My novel explores this tension and sheds light on the Panthers’ efforts and motivations, and yet the choice to tell this story was still met with some public resistance.

Why? Because a simplified, sanitized version of the civil rights–era story has deep roots in our education system. As I travel around the country making school appearances, students can readily tell me about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equality or Rosa Parks’s bold stand (by sitting). Far fewer have been taught that the “nonviolent” civil rights movement was about nonviolent resistance. Not just resistance to injustice, but resistance to extreme violence being perpetrated against Black people across the country. This truth has been dulled and softened to the point where students today often have no idea that being a civil rights activist meant actually putting your life on the line.

After the initial shock and ebullience of my first award call wore off, I was able to reflect on how remarkable it was for the Coretta Scott King Jury to so open-mindedly embrace a text that expands readers’ understanding of the civil rights era. And how important a statement it was for the jury to emphasize that my voice — as a debut author trying to expand young readers’ understanding of Black history — mattered to the powers-that-be of children’s literature.

The 2010 CSK winners and honor books

That same year, the CSK Illustrator Award went to Charles R. Smith Jr. for his photographic interpretation of My People, the iconic poem by Langston Hughes. The Illustrator Honor went to E. B. Lewis for his striking watercolors in The Negro Speaks of Rivers, also a Langston Hughes poem. Both texts had been written decades earlier, and yet they were brought to life by these artists in ways that celebrate the daily life of Black people, in all our joy, anguish, beauty, and struggle. The CSK Author Honor went to Tanita S. Davis for Mare’s War, an intergenerational novel about two granddaughters learning of their grandmother’s role in World War II. The Author Award went to Vaunda Micheaux Nelson for Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, bringing to life a lesser-known Black hero who broke boundaries in an unconventional way.

In my remarks at the awards breakfast that year, I noted how powerful it was that the jury had chosen to honor a whole collection of books that represent and celebrate the lives and experiences of everyday Black people, and/or expand young readers’ understanding of Black history. Because the thing is, we (Black authors) are writing those books — and many of them. They are not always the books that receive attention. They are often the books that we fight to simply get published, because the publishing industry has taken it upon itself to decide what counts as a Black story, despite being led by people with a limited understanding of what it means to be Black.

Early in my career, I was repeatedly faced with the following question from editors: if the characters in my book didn’t have to be Black, why should they be? The answer, of course, is because Black children exist and they deserve to have stories told about themselves, but I never could muster this simple response in the moment. It was all too confusing and hurtful, the unstated assumption that nothing about Black life mattered other than overt race struggle. It’s as if they were looking at the Black child within me and saying, “No one would choose to look like you.” The same publishers that had embraced my civil rights narratives balked at the idea of me writing contemporary novels with “no visible racial theme,” as they defined it. I was told, “That doesn’t sell.”

Ten years later, the publishing industry remains most comfortable publishing Black novels with visible racial themes, narrowly defined. The most predominant theme of late is novels about police shootings, police brutality, race violence, and contemporary civil rights protest. I wrote one of the first of these books, How It Went Down, which received a CSK Honor in 2015. More recent titles include Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, among others.

These books are important. Each sheds different light on a vital challenge of modern Black teen life, and they exist in conversation with one another. We need this range of titles, because it would be shortsighted to assume that any one book could do full justice to such a complicated, deep-rooted social phenomenon. At the same time, we do young readers a disservice if we allow these texts to remain the be-all, end-all, most celebrated of books about Black teens.

Why? you might ask, since violence against Black teenagers is one of the most urgent social problems our nation is facing. In one sense, it’s a deeply racist pattern that society needs to become aware of in order to address. In another sense, it’s simply a part of the fabric of our lives, one thread in the rich and beautiful tapestry that is life as a Black American. We fear for our lives in a visceral way, yes, but we become used to it; in the day-to-day sense it is not dissimilar to the way a new parent worries about SIDS, or a parent of a teen worries about car accidents, or a middle-aged man worries about a heart attack. It is out of our control and not something we can remove from our experience of the world. It cannot be our only preoccupation, or we would not be able to go on. We live with this fear, this pain, this lack of control, and we go on with our lives, because what’s the alternative? We choose to find joy in each other and in life. Isn’t that worth celebrating and honoring and, frankly, reminding ourselves of in those moments when the fear threatens to take us over?

Books can remind us that we are not alone in our fear, and they can also assure us that there is more than fear on the table in front of us. They can make us laugh, make us see our smiling selves in the mirror, and see ourselves as beautiful. The world makes it all too easy to see ourselves as troubled, unwanted, broken, too dark…can we not at least offer one another a comforting escape from our own minds that doesn’t involve, as is often the case with books, having to imagine ourselves with different skin?

The corollary here is that books about bias and race violence are not solely meant for Black readers. Rather, they function to bring non-Black readers into our world, to offer them a glimpse of this specific fear in hopes of moving the needle. A book like How It Went Down gives Black teens and non-Black teens a way to connect and converse about a difficult and sensitive topic that relates to their own lives.

Our industry has often made the mistake of conflating author with subject matter with audience. We say, “That book was written by a woman, so it is meant for girl readers.” We say, “That book was written by a Black author, so it is meant for Black readers.” We conveniently forget that we have very little trouble saying, “That book was written by a white man, and it’s for everybody.”

When editors used to ask me if my characters really had to be Black, it stemmed from this same troubling assumption. Essentially they were telling me that if I wrote my story about white children, it would be for everybody. All of the things that happened in my story would be more interesting to readers if they happened to a white child. What deeply flawed, and yes, racist, assumptions must we all carry about Black books, Black children, Black lives in general to lead us to that belief? Why can’t books about Black children be for everyone?

To situate this within the familiar frame given to us by Rudine Sims Bishop: race-based stories may be the windows non-Black readers desperately need, but Black readers need all kinds of mirrors.

Moving through this world as a Black person, you never forget that you are Black. You never forget the specter of racism and threat that always lies just around the corner. We need books to do more than try to remind us we are Black, especially when they do so by underscoring how poorly Black people have often been treated in this society. Overcoming racism is not all we are about, and it is not the only way we want to be seen. To deny us the ability to tell and to celebrate all of our stories is yet another way of denying us our humanity. It is yet another way of ensuring we will always and only be viewed through one particularly painful lens.

This year, I was fortunate enough to be recognized again with a Coretta Scott King Author Honor [Ed. note: and newly announced 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award] for The Season of Styx Malone, my middle-grade novel about the summer adventures of three Black boys in rural Indiana. I celebrate this most recent award not only for my own sake but for the many young readers who will now benefit from what Kirkus Reviews called “a love letter to black male youth.” Our youth deserve many more love letters, not just reminders of their pain.

When I look back over the lists of Coretta Scott King–honored books throughout the years, there are numerous examples of the jury lifting up unexpected, life-affirming, expansive books capable of helping readers of all backgrounds develop a deeper understanding of Black life. Readers hunger for such stories — if they can make it through the gauntlet of unrealistically limited expectations the publishing industry places upon Black writers and Black stories, and if teachers, librarians, and parents make the effort to view these books as opportunities not just for Black readers but for all readers.

This is why, at the awards breakfast in June, I will be thinking less about the past fifty glorious years of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards and more about the future. Do not get me wrong: it is vital that we continue to look back, to acknowledge every challenge that has been overcome to bring us to where we are, to recognize that we stand on the shoulders of giants. I am well aware of the blood, sweat, and tears of Black authors before me who paved the way for the opportunities I enjoy. Their work made my work possible, and the reality is that my work — our work, to deepen the canon of exceptional Black literature — is nowhere near done.

The 2019 CSK winners and honor books

I look forward because I’m excited about the possibilities of what is to come. I look forward to witnessing how the CSK Jury’s mandate to identify exceptional “books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values” continues to evolve and helps carry us further into the twenty-first century.

I look forward because, above all, it is a privilege to stand among the vast and growing collective of Black creators — CSK recognized or otherwise — who remain dedicated to producing children’s books that honor our past, reflect on the myriad joys and challenges of the present, and celebrate a strong and vibrant future.

From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Also read Kekla Magoon's article "The Writer’s Page: The Un-Hero’s Journey" and "A Second Look: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry." Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

Kekla Magoon
Kekla Magoon

Kekla Magoon is the winner of the 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and Poetry for The Season of Styx Malone (Lamb/Random). Her YA novels include The Rock and the River (Simon), How It Went Down (Holt), X: A Novel (with Ilyasah Shabazz; Candlewick), and the Robyn Hoodlum Adventures series (Bloomsbury). She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now serves on the faculty.

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